Even as a child, I loved to experiment with new things in the kitchen.
I think I was about 12 when I saw this fabulous illustration and recipe in one of my mother’s home and garden magazines.
A woman created this spectacular Jell-O mold. The Jell-O was red and a massive, jiggling heart sat atop a green bed of lettuce while decorated with white whipped cream, pink candy hearts and deep red strawberries.
It was beautiful.
And so it became my obsession, as I informed my mother I would be recreating the same thing for the family.
Mom encouraged such activity. And with good reason. She was already training me to take the reins in the kitchen as my interest/age increased and her interest/time went the other direction.
We always had a good supply of Jell-O mix in the house as it was cheap, required little storage space and was “easy to make.”
Plus, it was the 1970s.
I remember crawling onto the counter so as to pull down all the boxes so I could get the red ones.
I needed a number of boxes according to the recipe, because the giant mass was quite large. I was dejected when I saw we had only one box of cherry Jell-O – the rest were orange, lemon and lime.
Having no way to get more Jell-O, I decided I could mix all the different kinds together and put some drops of red food coloring into the mix.
When I realized we didn’t have any red food coloring, I spotted a packet of red Kool-Aid. At least it was red – so I decided that would be my color enhancer.
The next obstacle was that we didn’t own a heart-shaped mold. The next fanciest thing was a bundt cake pan, so I decided that would do.
Mom offered several times to help, but I refused. I wanted to do this all on my own.
Armed with my multi-flavored Jell-O mixes, red Kool-Aid packet and bundt cake pan, I still envisioned this magical feast for the eyes and the stomach.
As I read the recipe, I realized the lady in the magazine had used 7-Up, along with water, to make the Jell-O. We didn’t have any 7-Up, but we did have a bottle of flat Squirt leftover from my father’s last “card night with the guys.” My theory was that it had been fizzy at one time and it was all soda pop anyway – where would be the harm?
So I followed the recipe, putting in just the right amount of hot water and the cold (but flat) soda pop. I was going to add the cold water, but I remembered my mother sometimes using ice cubes to hurry the Jell-O process along. I was so impatient to create the masterpiece, I decided I’d use ice cubes as well.
The problem was I had no idea of ratios, when it came to a certain number of ice cubes matching a certain number of cups of water. So I improvised and just dumped in a bunch.
Then, I remembered my conundrum with the color situation. This odd, watery mixture was certainly not red, so I grabbed the Kool-Aid packet.
My juvenile brain wondered -- if it was Kool-Aid, should I also add water to that first?
At that point, I knew I should ask an adult, but I’d already sent the mother packing so I forged on.
I added water to the Kool-Aid and dumped that into the Jell-O concoction.
Before pouring it into the bundt pan, I suddenly had a flashback of the last time we used it – applying to the pan non-stick spray to keep the batter from sticking. Would a Jell-O mold be any different? I decided it was the same situation, so I put a good, steady, oily spray on that pan to make sure none of my sugary goodness would be left behind. After all, I wanted this Jell-O mold to be smooth and lovely, just like in the magazine.
I poured in the Jell-O stuff and shoved the whole thing in the refrigerator.
And thus, the waiting began.
Fortunately, there was already a container of Cool Whip in the freezer – so all I had to do was thaw that out. That occupied an entire minute of my life.
Every once in awhile, I’d peek in the refrigerator to see if it had set. When I jiggled the bundt pan, all I got was a sloshing mess. At least cleaning up the sugar kept me occupied while I waited.
The afternoon flew by and I was asked at least four times about my progress. I said it was going to be the most beautiful dessert ever created – I truly believed it.
With supper approaching, I began to panic because the bundt pan was still just full of a brownish-green liquid that seemed to have a whitish petroleum-like film oozing from the sides.
When I could take no more, I decided to put it in the deep freezer to speed up the process. Of course, I spilled the sweet goo on the floor, as I tried to balance my way to the utility room. My jeans were covered and wet by the time I maneuvered the freezer door into the upright position. My hands quivered as I placed the pan on top of packages labeled as hamburger and corn.
While I waited for the freezer process, I decided I could at least prep my decorative toppings. I had left-over candy hearts from making Valentines – check. The whipped topping was thawed out on the counter next to the stove – check. There weren’t any strawberries, but we had some bananas . . . so I peeled them and carefully cut them into chunks. I placed the banana pieces on a plate next to the whipped topping – remember, next to the stove.
Oh, did I mention there was a meatloaf in the oven at the time and the old gas contraption was putting out pretty good heat?
I wouldn’t let anyone see what I was doing – I had too much pride and ignorance to admit or even realize I was headed for a train wreck.
When I checked the Jell-O, it was certainly more solid, as the deep freezer had performed well. It was an odd combination of frost, brown water, floating oil and a bit of a frozen surface.
It was time to plate – as the chefs say – and I proudly walked back to the kitchen with my bundt pan full of strangeness.
I remember Mom took one look at the situation and gently suggested that “maybe you don’t want to take it out of the pan. I think it looks festive as it is.”
I argued that the entire thing had to stand on its own.
“On that lettuce over there,” I said, as I pointed to a cookie sheet covered in brown, wilted lettuce I had assembled hours earlier during my frustrating waiting period.
Mom suggested we just set the pan right on top of the lettuce. “You can still see how pretty it is,” she assured me and I agreed.
I worried because the whipped topping was in no way fluffy – it had pretty much melted. But it was what it was, so I poured it on top of the Jell-O mixture.
It was with great joy that I sprinkled those candy hearts (which sunk and dissolved in the goo) and added the now brownish-black banana chunks.
I looked at my mess and then at the magazine.
“It doesn’t look anything like it,” I said, now almost in tears.
“I think it looks pretty dang close,” my mother lied, putting her arm around me.
When it came to serve the situation, she brought along bowls and spoons – the family oohed and aahed in tones of which they’d obviously been coached.
Mom ladled the stuff and I remember my dad just lifting it to his lips and taking a big gulp.
He proclaimed it was delicious.
I don’t remember tasting it myself or what happened to the leftovers, but I realize that was the first time I felt the excitement and pride that comes with making something special and delicious for the ones you love.
Or, well, at least it was special.